Dr. Ben Carson is under fire for remarks he made on “Meet the Press” Sunday suggesting he would not support a Muslim president. But the Republican presidential candidate’s answer and especially his follow-up responses are more than just a dashed-off opinion about a hypothetical president. They’re common talking points among many far-right activists in Carson’s political orbit, and are used to sow doubts about individual Muslims’ loyalty to the U.S. – no matter how patriotic they might outwardly appear.
In an interview with The Hill after his “Meet The Press” appearance, Carson repeatedly brought up the concept of “taqiyya,” a concept in Shia Islamic law that’s historically given dispensation to Muslims to conceal their religion if they’re facing dangerous persecution. Carson defined the word as “a component of Shia that allows, and even encourages you to lie to achieve your goals.”
“Because obviously if a Muslim was running for president, there would be a lot more education about Sharia, about taqiyya,” Carson said.
The implication was clear: Even an otherwise politically acceptable Muslim candidate who embraces American values should be viewed as a potential extremist.
The logical extension, of course, is that the average Muslim citizen may be suspicious as well. Carson’s campaign spokesman Doug Watts spoke about American Muslims in blanket terms on Sunday, telling NBC News that there is “a huge gulf between the the faith and the practice of the Muslim faith, and our Constitution and American values.”
Carson’s theory of “taqiyya” is a popular idea in anti-sharia political circles. But Devin Stewart, a Middle Eastern studies professor at Emory University who has researched the history of the taqiyya, told msnbc Carson’s interpretation was contrary to its historic use in Shia Islam, which was similar to other religions. Many Jews, for example, converted to Catholicism during the Spanish Inquisition under threat of expulsion or violence, but secretly maintained Jewish traditions in their home. Stewart also likened taqiyya to “mental reservation,” a doctrine invoked by some Catholics at points to protect the church’s adherents under Protestant rule as well as similar cases of Protestants hiding their religion to avoid Catholic persecution.
“Singling Muslims out as duplicitous is unfair,” Stewart wrote in an email.
Anti-Islamic leaders like Frank Gaffney, who has been barred from the conservative gathering CPAC for accusing its organizers of being part of a radical Islamic conspiracy, frequently argue that Muslims who are outwardly fine with liberal democracy are using “taqiyya” to conceal their true views. Carson attended a summit co-hosted by Gaffney in Iowa this year along with Donald Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz, former Sen.r Rick Santorum, and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.
Geert Wilders, a far right Dutch politician popular in anti-sharia circles who has called for a ban on the Koran and for Dutch Muslims to lose their citizenship if they commit crimes, offered the same explanation to this reporter in 2009 when asked about American Muslims.
“Taqiyya means that they can fool and lie and are allowed, even have incentive, to lie until they become stronger and change their tune,” Wilders said.
“Carson is perfectly happy playing footsie with people who have very extreme views about Muslims,” Heidi Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremism, told msnbc. “This idea that Muslim loyalties lie somewhere else and that they can’t be trusted as Americans because their religion hampers their ability to be democratic or civilized – this is nothing new.”
The Anti-Defamation League, which was founded to combat anti-Semitism and other forms of discrimination, issued a statement from national director Jonathan Greenblatt on Monday denouncing Carson’s “deeply offensive” remarks.
“Remarks suggesting that all Muslims follow extremist interpretations of Islam have no basis in fact and fuel bigotry,” Greenblatt said.